Spring is an incredibly busy time for our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide. So many projects demand attention at once – and they all depend on so many variables! Planting native seed has to happen while the ground is still cold and wet. Prescribed burns, however, have to happen when the wind is low and from the right direction, and the plants are dry.
Meanwhile volunteer training and supervision is going on for vernal pool monitoring, nesting box monitoring and burn crews. Whew! Here’s a sample of what went on in late March and April at just one location – Bear Creek Nature Park.
Seeding Mowed Areas with Native Seed
In late March, Dr. Ben and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion began a project to spread the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers in the areas cleared by forestry mowing last fall. The hope is that these native plants can help prevent some renewed growth of the invasive shrubs that were removed. It’s a project that will take years of persistent work, but they made a good beginning.
Monitoring the Life in Vernal Pools
In mid- April, the stewardship staff, a stewardship tech from the Six Rivers Land Conservancy (see Ian below) and a group of volunteers, including Parks Commissioner Dan Simon and his wife pulled on tall boots and waders and ventured into the vernal pools in Bear Creek’s forest. The purpose is to monitor the health of these temporary pools, which are biodiversity hotspots in our forests.
As usual, the crew found a surprising variety of creatures. Spring frogs, salamanders and many insects choose vernal pools as a good place to mate and lay eggs because they are free of hungry fish. The pools dry up and disappear in warmer weather, preventing fish from establishing if they are introduced.
Nest Box Monitoring
For the second year, Dr. Ben has organized and trained a group of volunteers to monitor nest boxes from first nesting to the flight of fledglings. We “citizen scientists” report our data to Cornell Ornithology Lab’s “NestWatch” program. This year Ben added six boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park to the ones in Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. And I’ll be the Bear Creek monitor this year, which will be great! I’m hoping to count Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, and possibly Black-capped Chickadees or House Wrens where the nest boxes are closer to trees and shrubs. We might have Brown-headed Cowbirds to count too if those characters lay their eggs in any of the other birds’ nests!
The boxes were only up a day or so when Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) began to explore the boxes. I’m betting they are impressed with the real estate – new construction, a southeast exposure and a security system (metal predator guards to keep out raccoons, snakes, etc.). Between raindrops last Thursday, I watched a pair of Tree Swallows courting on one of the new boxes. They were doing their wet gurgling call to each other the whole time and touching beak-to-beak, while the male performed fancy wing displays. The male had just chased off a competitor, so he seemed excited! It looks like an argument in the photo below, doesn’t it? But I think it was just a lively prelude to mating.
I also found two completed Bluebird nests made of dry grasses in the new Bear Creek nest boxes, but didn’t get to see the female doing the building. However, here’s a little Bluebird female I saw at Charles Ilsley Park the week before bringing nesting material to her box.
Much to my delight, four days later at Bear Creek Nature Park, I found the first egg in one of our new boxes – a Bluebird egg. They lay one egg each day for 3-5 days and won’t start incubating them until all the eggs are laid. The eggs then generally hatch on the same day, making feeding the nestlings more efficient for the adult birds. Remember, please, that only trained and certified volunteers are allowed to monitor the bluebird boxes so as not to cause too much disturbance at the nest!
Holding Prescribed Burns Using Trained Volunteers
The township uses prescribed burns to periodically refresh our fire-adapted native plants, which benefit from periodic fires. Some of these burns are complicated and require hiring professional burn crews. But many are conducted by a group of volunteers trained and supervised by Dr. Ben. In late April, previous volunteer crew members and some new volunteers practiced their skills with two small burns at Bear Creek Nature Park in the native gardens near the parking lot. Volunteers are an important part of the stewardship program and the teamwork is an great way to meet local people who care about the natural world. Consider joining us!
And a Celebratory Dance to End a Busy Month
Toward the very end of April, Dr. Ben arranged our annual Earth Day/Spring celebration: The Woodcock Dance Watch – and wow! This year’s dance was spectacular! This odd bird, with big eyes toward the back of its head, a stout body and a huge beak, does its unique aerial mating dance at dusk.After a short review of information about the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), we toasted marshmallows while waiting for the sun to set. (Thanks to iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith for sharing his photo.)
This year, one of our birding group members had been making almost nightly visits to Bear Creek Nature Park to watch one particular Woodcock who faithfully danced on the path near a certain puddle. So, as the sky darkened, ten of us gathered on the slope designated by our birder friend, Vinnie, and waited.
Suddenly, very close to us, the Woodcock landed on the path and started his dance. He began with a very odd bug-like buzz called a “peent” call while turning in circles, as he attempted to attract any available female. Then he took to the air with whirring wings, flying in lazy circles high in the air while burbling a different call. Finally he plopped back down right where he started. Without pause he started the “peenting” again, and the dance continued. It was an exciting performance! We all came away feeling it had been an evening well spent celebrating the spring rituals of the natural world.
A Busy Month for Nature and its Stewards
Ah, Spring! Little creatures slip into and out of ponds to begin mating. Seeds await the moisture and warmth they need to thrust new stems into the sunlight. Birds are busy migrating north, establishing territory, finding mates, building nests – even dancing! And we humans are busy studying, recording and preparing their habitat for another glorious summer!
Sunlight is dappling the Oak-Hickory forest at Bear Creek. Tiny Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) shine pink and white wherever thin spring sun touches the forest floor. Migrating birds, here for a brief stop before moving north, hop from limb to limb in the treetops, searching for a meal. Some of our summer visitors are exploring for nests around the forest’s vernal pools while others are settling in around the ponds and among the twigs and vines in sunny areas.
A few butterflies and moths flutter through open fields, keeping us company as we walk. Springs bubble up out of the ground and a stream flows through the woods toward the marsh. The haze of green moves up from the shrubs into the trees. In the woods, in marshes and wetlands, in sunny meadows – at last, it’s really spring!
Spring in the Woods
During the night, migrating birds are riding the south wind, finding their way back to Bear Creek. A busy group of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) chatted and fluttered in the greening forest. They’re on their way north to court and breed among the conifers farther up in Michigan. Some go as far as Hudson Bay or eastern Alaska. Here they’re stocking up on protein for the flight, finding little insects on the branches. Later, in the trees near the Snell marsh, I got a shot of one showing his eponymous “yellow rump” patch. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions.)
Farther into the woods, near one of the vernal pools we monitored a few weeks ago, two Wood Ducks had arrived from the south and were checking out possible nest holes 25-30 feet up in a snag (standing dead tree.) They prefer the larger holes left by fallen branches. Wood ducks have strong claws on their feet to grasp branches and bark. Later, their 3 day old ducklings will jump down from those heights into the leaves below unharmed to join their mother foraging in a nearby pond as seen in this 1.5 minute Youtube video from a BBC documentary.
Down in the vernal pool, beneath the Wood Ducks, stood a graceful, small tree covered in white blossoms, a Juneberry or Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.). This native tree produces small fruits that are much beloved by birds and other wildlife.
Plentiful spring rain topped up the vernal pool and a few Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus)began to sing again. Mostly, though, they seem to have found their mates and deposited their eggs on vegetation under the water.
Likewise, the salamanders have finished producing those huge bundles of eggs that were in the last Bear Creek blog. These nocturnal creatures are now back under logs nearby, waiting to come out and feed at night. Here’s what I think is a small Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) that we found under wood in a moist area near a vernal pond.
Under the budding branches of taller trees, all kinds of native plants are finding their way into the pale sunlight. The sunny faces of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) shown in the last Bear Creek blog (left) have finished blooming. But all over the woods you can see their cloak-like leaves which unfold after the flowers drop their petals. In the center, stands the Bloodroot’s “fruit” which now contains its fertilized seeds.
As the tree canopy fills high above, the Bloodroot’s stalk will continue to grow until it forms a little umbrella over the fruit. Eventually the seed capsule will swell and burst, dispersing tiny brown seeds for next year’s crop to be carried underground by ants who relish the elaiosome, a parcel rich in oils and proteins, attached to the seed. This was a great year for Bloodroot. Successive prescribed burns may have really benefited this little woodland flower.
May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) are living up to their names. Their umbrella-like leaves shelter a round green bud that resembles a tiny apple. It will bloom into a creamy white flower in a few weeks, still hidden beneath the leaves.
An inconspicuous little plant called Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)is just completing its bloom all over the forest. It appears to be little clumps of grass, but this time of year, this sedge blooms with a little yellow flower. The papyrus that ancient Egyptians used was made from a member of the sedge family.
In moist places in the woods, an old friend appeared this week. Jack-in-the Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) produce bright red cones of berry-like fruit in the late summer and fall.
At the edge of the wood, where it meets the field or the marsh, one of my favorite summer visitors has arrived. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus), with the striking rosy red patch on his white chest and black and white patterned back, sings at the forest edge near the marsh and the pond. This one hid in a bush when he saw my camera – but kept singing!
And what a song! Here’s a recording in Bear Creek by my friend, Antonio Xeira from the Xeno-cantu website . (Be sure to turn up your volume.)
Some flowers seem to be happiest at the forest edge, too. Like the shy Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia). Such a pretty little face.
Approaching the pond as you come out of the eastern woods, you begin to see and hear a small stream flowing toward the marsh. It’s most apparent under the boardwalk at the eastern edge of the Center Pond.
That little stream joins with ground water rising to the surface in the marsh and eventually flows under Gunn Road at the northeast corner of the marsh – becoming the park’s namesake, Bear Creek! I love the sound of running water after a frozen winter!
Spring in the Marshes, Ponds and Vernal Pools
There are babies down near the water. Four young Canada Goose goslings (Branta canadensis) paddled and bobbed between their parents as they surveyed Bear Creek Marsh.
And three small Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)crowded together on the tip of a log after rain made the water rise in the Center Pond. Space in the sunshine was at a premium!
High above the marsh near Snell Road, the air was full of newly hatched midges and Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooped back and forth with their mouths wide open gathering them in. Their ruddy breasts caught the evening light at dusk one night and shone like copper. They were much too fast and high for a good shot. So here’s a link to see one at the Audubon website.
Approaching the Center Pond at a distance one early evening, I saw a Great Egret drifting down to the water. I hurried along with my camera, but a very nice couple, walking and talking, scared him up just as I put the camera to my eye! Drat. So here’s one of my favorite egret photos from another year. I’m glad to know they’re still at Bear Creek since I missed them last year.
The leaves of an aquatic plant float on the surface of the Playground Pond. What a lovely pattern Celery Leaf Buttercup(Ranunculus sceleratus) makes in spring sunlight!
Spring in the Meadows
While near the Center Pond, keep an eye out for another summer visitor, the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), a feisty bird who harasses much larger birds that enter its territory – even hawks and herons! According to the Cornell lab, “They have been known to knock unsuspecting Blue Jays out of trees.” The Kingbird’s dark head, upright posture and the white tips on its tail make it quickly recognizable. This flycatcher spends the winter eating fruit in South American forests.
Out in the eastern meadow one morning, a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) sang its wonderful liquid song next to the nesting box at the top of the hill. I didn’t see a mate, so he may have been trying to attract one to that suitable home. This photo was taken an hour later as another one swooped for midges above the Playground Pond. I love the distinctive liquid gurgle of their calls.
Here’s Antonio’s recording of the burbling sound of the Tree Swallow.
In the meadow that morning, a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) had found a small tree near the Tree Swallow. He stood at the very top, threw back his small head, and sang!
The Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) is a summer visitor who spent the winter in either Florida or the Caribbean. This little sparrow has a rusty brown cap and snappy black eye stripe and white supercilium ( strip above the eye).
Some describe its chipping song as sounding like a sewing machine. Below is another recording at Xeno-cantu by my friend, Antonio Xeira.
Tiny early spring butterflies and moths spin and float along the trails, as caterpillars trundle slowly in the grass below. Here again is the caterpillar of the Virginia Ctenucha Moth but this time I saw it upside down so that its red feet and white tufts were more apparent than its dark upper side with its two faint yellow stripes seen in an earlier blog.
You may remember the Spring Azure butterfly with its gray underside from last week’s post about Draper Twin Lake Park. Amazingly, at Bear Creek this week, one settled for a quick moment and I got to see the lovely lavender blue of the upper surface of its wings, which I normally see only as a spinning blur when its flying.
On the trail last week, my husband spotted this tiny moth with about a one inch wingspread. At first I thought it was some sort of fancy fly, but after some research, we learned it was a Grapevine Epimenis Moth (Psychomorpha epimenis). This tiny moth’s caterpillar, as its name applies, uses various grapevines as a host plant. According to Wikipedia, “The larva [caterpillar] makes a leaf shelter in new foliage by taking the leaf edges, pulling them upward and then tying them together with silk.”
During the recent prescribed burn at Bear Creek, Ben discovered a small spring bubbling out of the earth in the eastern meadow. There’s something magical about water flowing up out of the earth, only to sink and disappear again.
The native plants transplanted to Bear Creek last year from a generous donor are beginning to bloom near the pavilion. The golden Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) shone like a little sun of its own in late afternoon light. And another lovely native, new to me, is the wildflower on the right with the unfortunate name of Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora).The leaves seem to droop like the lovely flower, though Ben tells me, once blooming is over, they expand, fill out and look lovely for the rest of the summer!
Final Note: Closed Trail
Some of you may have noticed that the trail that wound around the wetland below the south hill is closed. Five years ago when a management plan was created for Bear Creek, Plantwise, who studied the park and wrote the plan, recommended reducing trail density in the park so that the wildlife would have larger portions of undisturbed habitat. Also, being near the marsh, the newly closed trail is often soggy with standing water, which which means wet feet for hikers, deep ruts made by bikers and headaches for mowing crews. It also means that when those activities take place on the trail, there’s erosion and the possibility of increased sedimentation in the marsh. As Ben said, “Moving the trail away from the wetland may allow the woodcock and some other birds to breed successfully near that little wetland, instead of using it as a temporary stopover on the way to better habitat.”
So if you start down the south hill below the benches, just take a left into what I’ve always called “the tunnel of trees” and you’ll come out on the south side of the meadow that’s east of the Center Pond. From there, you can skirt the wetland from the other side and still see the birds at the edge of the marsh and listen to their songs from a nice dry trail. Dry feet and more birds. Sounds like a workable solution.
Spring All Over Bear Creek
So no matter where you go now in Bear Creek, spring asserts itself. If you settle on a quiet bench by the water, climb a rolling woodland trail or stroll through a sunlit meadow, spring will be singing, flying, fluttering and swimming by and around you. Relish it while it lasts!
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.